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Become a Better Leader by Studying Kim Kardashian's Marriage

Four simple, destructive behaviors that doom a marriage--and a business.
NBA player Kris Humphries and his wife reality TV personality Kim Kardashian appear on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno at NBC Studios on October 4, 2011 in Burbank, California.
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Kim Kardashian and I have one thing in common. Neither of us would know the other if we tripped over them.

Before a few days ago, I was aware that she's famous, that she's had reality shows and a sex tape, that she had a 72-day marriage to the NBA's Kris Humphries, and that she has more Twitter followers (17.8 million million as of last count) than all but three U.S. states have people.

But then, the other night, a friend posted a link on Facebook to Scientific American: "How to Have a Longer Marriage Than Kim Kardashian."

I clicked. I read. I learned. I learned about Kim Kardashian--but I also learned some great tips for running a business.

The article was based on a study of married couples that lasted 14 years (about 71 times the length of the Kardashian-Humphries marriage). As I read, I realized that psychologists John Gottman and Robert Levenson's advice about saving a marriage also adds up to great practical advice for leading stakeholders in your business.

Gottman and Levenson didn't actually study the Kardashian-Humphries marriage, but they wanted to identify early signs that couples would split. So, they asked 80 Midwestern married couples to describe a recent argument. They recorded how the couples interacted with each other--and then they tracked them for 14 years.

Here's the amazing part, according to writer Melanie Tannenbaum:

Gottman and Levenson eventually realized something incredibly important: They didn't actually need to note down all that much. In fact, there were just four behaviors that could be used to predict which couples would still be married 14 years later -- with 93 percent accuracy.

Gottman and Levenson refer to the troublesome quartet of behaviors -- contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling -- as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (This is where the Kardashian part comes in, because Tannenbaum cleverly illustrated each behavior using clips of Kardashian and Humphries arguing on TV.)

Avoiding these four behaviors might be good for a marriage, but they're also an excellent guide for any business leader who wants to improve communication. So here's an examination of the four, along with what you can do to avoid them in your business.

1. Avoid contempt by building a culture of appreciation.

Contempt "is a potent mix of anger and disgust," Tannenbaum writes. The Kardashian clip she chose to illustrate contempt shows Humphries telling his soon-to-be-bride that her career is "essentially worthless" during a heated debate over what state they should live in.

To avoid contempt, Gottman and Levenson advise leading by example, with constant, proactive, respect. This might mean giving credit for accomplishments, but also offering admiration for their work in things that you don't do as well. (Think of the marketing person who shows sincere interest and respect in how the product developers learned their craft.) It also means demonstrating that you, as a leader, expect the same kind of respect in return.

2. Make criticism about actions, not people.

Gottman and Levenson draw a distinction between personal criticism and legitimate complaints. Tannenbaum illustrates this with a video clip in which Kardashian tells Humphries that his messy tooth-brushing habits are "gross" and that people like him are "one of [her] pet peeves."

The old adage, "praise in public, criticize in private" has fallen out of favor, so it's even more essential now that you promote a culture in which expressions of contempt are verboten. People need to think about whether they're legitimately criticizing their colleagues' performance, or launching more ad hominem attacks.

3. Avoid defensiveness; be responsible.

The best offense may be a good defense, but defensiveness only gives offense. Tannenbaum illustrates this with a clip in which Kardashian blames Humphries when she loses of a $75,000 pair of earrings in the ocean--refusing to accept her possible responsibility for say, wearing $75,000 earrings in the ocean.

Gottman and Levenson advise avoiding defensiveness by actively accepting responsibility when things go wrong.

"This doesn't mean shouldering all the blame," Tannenbaum writes, but simply acknowledging your acts and omissions that may have contributed to someone else's less-than-stellar performance. Doing so might help you quickly navigate the personal minefields in a difficult situation and approach the real problems.

4. Don't tolerate stonewalling.

They say the opposite of love isn't hate, it's apathy. To illustrate this Tannenbaum chose a clip in which Kardashian told Humphries she did not plan to take his last name.

"This clearly bothers him," she wrote, but "rather than talking this out and coming to some sort of compromise or reasoned conclusion, Kris completely shuts her out."

Stonewalling can be a behavioral response to stress, she continues, "accompanied by increased physiological responses like an accelerated heart rate, higher blood pressure, and sweating." If you feel yourself reacting in this way, or if you observe it in your employees, Gottman and Levenson's advice is to "engage in something called 'physiological self-soothing,' which basically just means taking deep breaths and trying to mindfully relax."

In other words, take a deep breath, count to 10, and remind yourself that your business (or your relationship) is well worth the price of this momentary stress. As H.G. Wells said, "The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow."

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: May 17, 2013

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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